The cessation of operations with the freshly announced intent to implement the 2003 ceasefire can be a game changer in stabilisation of Jammu and Kashmir.
Almost two weeks have passed since the temporary cessation of operations, also referred by its older avatar Non-Initiation of Combat Operations (NICO), specifically brought in place for the period of Ramzan. NICO was spurned early by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and vaguely responded to by Hizbul Mujahideen and the Hurriyat, more in the negative. It is a measure aimed primarily at cooling down the security and social environment, allow the public to observe the rituals associated with Ramzan, create goodwill and hopefully bring a reduction (if not an end) in the unabated violence, which has afflicted Kashmir since the neutralisation of Burhan Wani on 8 Jully 2016.
As stated by the state Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, the next steps can be considered once there is success with NICO since the situation remains highly complex with multiple and diffused stakeholders. Pakistan’s none too strong commentary on NICO has also finally led to the decision to fully implement the unwritten and informal ceasefire of 2003. The approach of one step at a time is considered wise as committing too far with NICO can bounce back quite negatively. As it is public opinion in rest of India does not appear in favour of any holding back of the security forces (SF) because a perception persists that the momentum of success gained by the SF must not dilute.
The decision on NICO presumably presupposed that the security situation was well under control notwithstanding sporadic violence which took lives from time to time. It is the turbulence caused by frequent phases of stone throwing, which had caused more anguish as SF found the response to that a challenge far beyond the binaries of terrorist related situations. Specifically, the actions of flash mobs interfering in SF operations to allow terrorists to make their escape had brought about a serious challenge. However, to the credit of all the SF, despite the obvious discomfort of having to operate with interference by unarmed civilians their conduct was professional with employment of minimal force.
What was an even more disturbing trend which probably set government analysts to consider a change of tack and cool the operational environment was the switch in the threats. Through 28 years' of terror in J&K, except for a brief period at the advent, the campaign had been driven by the strength of foreign terrorists, who successfully infiltrated through different Line of Control (LoC) routes. No longer is that the main threat because with quantum increase in local recruitment it is the Kashmiri youth who hold sway over the alienation factor, which is decidedly strong. While elimination of those who pick up the gun is also necessary, those operations must assist in the overall aim of finding peace and not exacerbate the situation. Serious analyses by government agencies reflect that attrition alone could not deliver as funerals of local terrorists became the cause celebre for driving motivation of youth, all hailing from the not too distant vicinity of the villages, where funerals are held.
Before looking at the effect of the LoC ceasefire decided on 29 May 2018, post the Director General Of Military Operations (DGMO) hotline interaction, it is important to review the situation through the first two weeks of the Ramzan NICO; at the half way mark. In the last 10 days, there has been an absence of violence in North Kashmir except for an unsuccessful but major infiltration bid through the Lipa Valley; NICO does not apply to the counter infiltration grid. One civilian was, however, killed by terrorists in Bandipura area. In South Kashmir, there have been two major incidents of attack on an army camp at Kakapura in Pulwama and an improvised explosive device (IED) blast on an army Mine Protected Vehicle (MPV) resulting in loss of a jawan and injuries to three more. Minor adjustment issues to the NICO have taken place in Shupiyan, where an army-organised iftaar ended up with some problems. All these are comparatively small in the context of the larger picture.
Most noticeably, there was a major bout of ceasefire violations (CFVs) across the Jammu International Border (IB) resulting in casualties and displacement of almost 95,000 people from their homes (NICO does not apply here either but the increase in ceasefire violations by Pakistan proved its lack of support for the Indian initiative). On the positive side, there has been a reduction in the number of stone-throwing incidents in Kashmir and tourism is picking up with airfares to Srinagar having substantially increased. Pakistan’s comments on NICO remained reasonably muted, indicating that there was either some dilemma about response or a positive step was in the offing. The marked increase in CFVs in the IB sector may have been an unnecessary and mischievous messaging about Pakistan capability, which under the circumstances is diluting as that country comes to terms with its adverse financial situation.
At no time was it expected that NICO will lead to a complete absence of violence. The army and other security forces are maintaining their vigil and domination having only ceased to execute cordon and search operations (CASO) and search and destroy operations (SADO). Ground reports do indicate a relatively calmer environment although the short period is insufficient to pass judgement on the failure of success of NICO.
Realistically, I am not hopeful for anything better; perhaps a worsening of the situation could occur if infiltration attempts are successful, although it takes a few weeks for freshly infiltrated elements to become effective. What appears heartening is that there are as yet no reports of fresh local recruitment making use of the relatively calm situation and absence of triggers, which evoke strong emotions; this really is the meaning of calming the environment. The real success of NICO will be evident if the conditions permit the extension into the period of the Amarnath Yatra. That will allow more public opinion to build in favour of NICO. It is something the authorities must work upon through effective communication and outreach to the people in and out of J&K.
The decision to implement the 2003 ceasefire in letter and spirit comes on the back of developments, which appeared to indicate a move towards the positive. It reinforces the decision for NICO and does indicate presence of strong back channel consultation. A couple of Track 2 dialogues have been active in examining the potential of a ceasefire for long, besides the national security advisers of both countries appear to have been in touch more than the reported number of times and for good measure.
Even as Pakistan comes under acute financial pressure and its political situation remains tenuous, the potential to pursue an overactive policy of attempting to calibrate the situation in J&K may not be feasible. Thus what India has is only a window at the moment. I would not recommend premature commitment to any process at the political level. In fact, the different voices which sometimes appear to emanate from leaders at high levels do contribute to obfuscation, which could be the right strategy for the moment until there is more on the plate.